On May 14, 2019, Umar Syed Khalid ‘satisfactorily’ cleared his viva voce examination and was awarded a PhD degree from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. As one of the two external examiners, I was enabled via Skype to conduct his hour and a half long oral defence. A defence that typically involved several rounds of disagreement, debate, discussion and that was finally culminated with a set of suggestions for turning the thesis into a published academic monograph. Needless to add, a PhD degree is an acknowledgement that an original and meaningful contribution to a discipline has been made and Umar convincingly met all those exacting requirements.
Seeing and hearing Umar calmly sum up his claims and patiently respond to our numerous queries, however, bordered on the unreal. To those in the know, the past three years for Umar have been nothing short of terrifying, to say the least. He has been jailed for sedition, vilified as an ‘anti-national’, declared a public enemy through innuendo, rumour and fake reporting by the establishment media, systematically harassed by the Modi government’s ferocious security apparatus and aggressively pursued as a ‘Muslim terrorist’ by a range of Hindutva storm troopers. And as if to prove there could still be ways to increase the violence of threat and harassment, there was a gut wrenching murderous attempt on his life as well. Umar survived only because his would be killer’s gun jammed after firing a missed first shot.
Somehow, incredibly enough, amidst the horrors of such sustained psychological and physical abuse, Umar submitted an engaging and compelling thesis. Much in the style of a ‘deconstruction mood’, Umar challenges several of the dominant frameworks in which histories on the Adivasis have thus far been written. As a term, it must be noted, Adivasi is increasingly the preferred form of self-reference by former forest based communities, especially in central India, otherwise described as tribal or the constitutionally designated Scheduled Tribes (ST).
Umar punctures the representation of the Adviasis as a community that was always egalitarian and a product of an ‘eternal unchanging pastness’. In contrast, he argues that the Adivasis are not only a people with a history created out of varied entanglements with the world but that their contemporary political possibilities lie in recovering their many pasts from the conceptual slants generated by colonial anthropology, British perceptions on primitivism and a range of resistance ideologies that have denied them agency.
Umar writes clearly, passionately and with much nuance to repeatedly caution us that writing history requires us to remain alert and attentive to the narrative’s underlying assumptions. His overall claims, moreover, are ably backed up with some rigorous archival work at the National Archives of India, the Bihar State Archives, the District Collectorate Record Room (Chaibasa, Jharkhand), the Regional Archives (Ranchi) and the West Bengal State Archives (Kolkata).
Umar’s thesis, undoubtedly, is no lazy effort. Its sheer rigour, in fact, can take head on the most vicious slander that was propagated with great effect by members of the Modi government and the multiple arms of the Hindutva brigade during the height of the clampdown on Indian universities in 2016. I refer here to the wilful and systematic creation of the perception that research scholars in public universities were simply ‘aged students’ who were fattening on government subsidies and just wasting time in tea shops and losing themselves in pointless discussions, while the financial tab for these so-called habitual ‘work-shirkers’ was being picked up by honest hard working tax payers. This insidious falsehood, if there ever was one, not only sought to demonise intellectuals, but to effectively erode the respect and standing of public universities in India.
The rise of ‘anti-intellectualism’ in the Modi years, perhaps, is no great surprise. Anti-intellectualism as the ‘hostility and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals and intellectualism’ that is backed with contempt for critical thought and reflection has been standard fare in all authoritarian regimes. The strategy, in fact, is pretty much well scripted. The anti-intellectual assumes the role of being the defender of the ordinary folk or ‘raw wisdom’ by going on to use muscular political populism to savage the status and presumed intellectual elitism of the academic world.
Hitler’s Germany not only shamed and eliminated its liberal intelligentsia, but in 1933 in a ‘nationwide action against the un-German spirit’, the Nazis carried out the mass burning of books across universities. Some of the books that were burned in the fiery ‘cleansing’ included those written by Einstein, Freud, Brecht, Karl Marx, Kafka and many others. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in Mao’s China similarly saw the organising of the impatient youth into Red Guard units, who were then tasked with aggressively attacking teachers and professors. In the course of the Cultural Revolution, most schools and universities were shut down, causing incalculable harm to learning and education across the country. Stalin’s regime in the erstwhile Soviet Union was also marred by outrageous purges against its intelligentsia and undoubtedly became one of the main causes for a huge intellectual vacuum.
Umar Khalid’s PhD, however, also gives us grounds to pause over another equally troubling moment in contemporary India. Notably, the steady and seemingly irretrievable decline of India’s public university system. Umar’s thesis, in my opinion, bears the classic signature of public funded education. Questions that challenge power, notions that deepen citizenship, efforts to strengthen democratic thought and the opening up of history to explore ways to broaden the very idea of India itself. This is a thesis that does not carry the fear of student debt or high university fees nor the smell of the market. The quality of its free spirited writing, in fact, draws deeply from the democratic cultures that only a public university can sustain, when allowed to.
If the Indian middle class and the people in general need to take but one lesson from Umar Khalid’s brave and magnificent effort, then it is that high fees and the neo-liberal refurbishing of the social sciences and humanities through expensive private universities will only be a straight road to intellectual aridity and unsustainable debt. The best bet, in India, still remains the public university and that is the single most important ideal worth fighting for.
Rohan D’Souza is associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.